The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 32, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
The Tao can’t be perceived. How many times has Lao Tzu driven this point home? Your senses aren’t of any use to you in discovering it. Lao Tzu tries to point at it; but what is he pointing at, really? It is before time and space were. It is beyond is and is not. It isn’t a tangible something that we can use science to define and explain. And when science starts talking about intangibles, if scientists are being honest with us and themselves, the best answer is, “I don’t know.” How are we supposed to understand something that is “before” other things we don’t understand? Because it is “beyond” is and is not, how can I ever use “is” or “is not” in a sentence to tell of the Tao. This is the problem we have been dealing with since Lao Tzu began with chapter one. Oh, we know a lot more about time and space, now, than we did in Lao Tzu’s day. Or, at least we think we know a whole lot more. And I always chuckle to myself whenever I read Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the next line. “Smaller than an electron, it contains uncountable galaxies.” That was published back in 1986, I believe; yes, I remember when we thought the smallest thing was an electron. We know better now, but we always only know in part. Still, the point remains the same. How can something so small contain so much?
The short answer is that the Tao is something before and beyond anything we can ever imagine. And since it can’t be perceived, it seems to go without saying, powerful men and women aren’t very likely to center themselves in the Tao. Oh, but what if they could? And then, what if they could remain centered in it?
The reason I find this such an interesting question is because, isn’t this just what Lao Tzu has been telling us all to do? Center yourself in the Tao. Remain centered in it. That has been his message to us, all along. But today, he turns his gaze to just the powerful men and women, among us. Why does he do this? Why, indeed. Perhaps, it is because, if there is anyone that won’t be content to stay centered, who won’t give up trying to control, who won’t stop interfering with the way things are, it is powerful men and women. Powerful men and women will insist they want to be a force for good. But with their power they only make things bad. It isn’t by exercising power, but by restraining yourself, that harmony and balance result.
Leave it alone! That is the message. All things would be in harmony. The world would become a paradise. All people would be a peace, and the law would be written in their hearts.
But where does that leave powerful men and women? I was thinking of this today as I heard the news that the Fed won’t be raising interest rates just yet. The Fed is a perfect illustration of how powerful men and women can’t bring themselves not to manipulate. They have painted themselves into a corner, for years now. They are right between a rock and hard place, and my, oh my, how the squeeze is on. However they end up extricating themselves, you can bet we will all suffer.
That is why Lao Tzu’s words ring so true for me today. “When you have names and forms, know that they are provisional. When you have institutions, know where their functions should end. Knowing when to stop, you can avoid danger.”
We need to know when to stop. That is the only way to avoid danger. Somehow, I think we should have known sooner. And some dangers are now unavoidable. But that is a huge downer with which to end this post.
Instead, I am going to remember where it is that all things end. In the end, it doesn’t much matter what powerful men and women do. For the Tao is before and beyond them, and anything they can do. All things end in the Tao. The Tao flows through all things, inside and outside, and returns to the origin of all things. Just like rivers flow into the sea, it all ends there.
The Tao is great. It follows only itself. Back to itself. But it can’t be perceived, how can we center ourselves in it? How can we stay centered in it? It is a very good thing that what we can’t perceive, can still carry us along in its current. We follow the Earth. The Earth follows the Universe. And the Universe follows the Tao. Just go with that flow.